Feverish accumulation of strange and wonderful things began with the Renaissance exploration of the world in the fifteenth century, and exploded in contests between philosophers, popes, and emperors to field collections of botany, geology, alchemy, medicine, and archaeology. The catalogue of Collection of Rarities assembled by John Tradescant in the 1630’s documents curiosities such as: “Nunnes penitential Girdles of Haire, A Bracelet made of the thighes of Indian flyes, Edward the Confessors knit gloves, Divers night-caps made of grasse, A little Box with the 12 Apostles in it, Variety of Chains, made of the teeth of Serpents, A book of all the Stories in the glasse-windowes of Sancta Sophia lim’d in vellum by a Jew, Flea chains of silver and gold with 300 links a piece and yet but an inch long, A piece of the Stone of Sarrigo-Castle where Helen of Greece was born….”
Cabinets of Curiosities were assembled as symbolic demonstrations of power and influence. The urge toward accumulation, and the juxtapositions that resulted from the excess, fueled collectors’ passion. Inspiration found in the random placement of serpent’s teeth and nuns’ girdles led to more careful cataloguing of the provenance and history of the objects, with annotations of botanical, medical, and skeletal remains. Haphazardness made possible only by the sheer volume of objects gave way to scientific classification. Matching like with like may have started as a parlor game, but the groupings that organize artifacts through taxonomies of time, place, antecedents, or other natural relationships were later encoded in the nomenclature of science.
As collections grew, in place of a cabinet, architecture became the spatial organizer and the generator for contemplation about relationships between objects and systems.
The Gesta Grayorum (1594), a court revel performed before Queen Elizabeth I and attributed to Francis Bacon, described an imaginary research facility containing “a most perfect and general library” and “a spacious, wonderful garden” filled with wild and cultivated plants and surrounded by a menagerie, aviary, freshwater lake, and saltwater lake. Spaces for living nature were complemented by a museum of science, art, and technology – “a goodly huge cabinet” housing artifacts (“whatsoever the hand of man by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff”), natural oddities (“whatsoever singularity, chance, and the shuffle of things hath produced”), and gems, minerals, and fossils (“whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept”). The fourth and final component was a space in which to test nature, “a still-house, so furnished with mills, instruments, furnaces, and vessels as may be a palace fit for a philosopher’s stone.’ [i]
Bacon’s imaginary place brings together natural history and science, medicine and engineering within one edifice, a trove of all of the abundance of the world through all times in history. We can accomplish this today with a computer and a connection, and yet we demand so much more. Many of the botanic and animal specimens of the 1600’s are endangered today because of our overuse of the world’s abundance. Instead of preserving habitats and cultures in place to continue production of the unique and exotic, we collect and number the dwindling species, study and classify their remains, and archive them in cabinets with humidity and temperature control. By making these fragments ours we ensure their rarity, and perhaps extinction; after all, the archetypal dodo was one of the star attractions of the AshmoleanMuseum, the successor to John Tradescant’s collection.